Constraints: Context, Significance & Empathy

The affordances of GIFs were seldom related to history. GIFs instead provided personal and social affordances. These included an increased ability to engage their audiences, affective vocabulary for responding to class content, and the possibility of building affinity with peers and past peoples. The benefits of GIFs sometimes aided students in producing innovating, insightful interpretations of history (such as @valennyy’s Daoist hedgehog), but in general GIFs afforded play and pleasure rather than increased historical understanding.

While GIFs presented immense affordances for students’ personal and social engagement in the course, the media hindered students’ practice of historical significance and historical empathy. GIFs constrained students from broadening their definitions of historical significance by reinforcing the social media habit of defining “significant” as “that which captures my attention.” The fluid relationship between context and GIFs also limited students’ practice of historical empathy by making it difficult for students to discern differences between past and present. Students’ inadvertent participation in problematic GIF trends, most notably the use of digital blackface to express emotions, likewise restrained their practice of everyday empathy.

Significance: GIFs, Attention, and Importance

GIFs had an outsized impact on students’, and their instructor’s, attention. Tweets with GIFs received almost three times as many interactions as tweets without GIFs and exerted a disproportionate pull on both the students’ attention and mine. Our attention to GIFs limited the number of tweets we viewed and consequently narrowed the range of topics and themes discussed in the course. GIFs’ influence on attention hindered students’ historical significance skills by reinforcing the perception that “significance” is synonymous with “attention-capturing.”

Impact of Media & GIFs (specifically) on Attention

The outsized impact of GIFs on the students’ and my attention was in keeping with the influence of media in general on our attention in the course. Table 12 shows tweets with media, including GIFs, static images, screenshots of text, links, quoted retweets, and videos, made up only a small portion of the original tweets (1,551 of the 10,752 original tweets in the All Tweets dataset, or ~14.43%). Yet tweets containing any form of media received at least one interaction (i.e., a retweet or favorite) almost twice as often as tweets without media. Overall, 40.62% of tweets with media received one or more interaction versus only 21.24% of the tweets without media.

Table 12. Comparison of tweets with one or more vs zero retweets and favorites (interactions)

Total TweetsCount Tweets Interactions >=1Count Tweets Interactions =0Percent Tweets Interactions >=1Percent Tweets Interactions =0
with media155163092140.62%59.38%
without media92011954723821.24%78.67%

Media in general therefore had a significant impact on whether or not the students and I retweeted or favorited a tweet, but GIFs exerted a more consistent pull on our attention than other forms of media (see Table 13). Static images outnumbered GIFs in students’ tweets, but a large proportion of the images were confined to a single class. Ninety of the 252 static images (35.71%) in tweets were related to Class 24: Southeast Asia. By contrast, GIFs appeared in students’ tweets across the semester; the highest concentration was 89 GIFs related to Class 3, which is only 10.34% of the total GIFs.

Table 13. Total tweets, interactions count, and average interactions by media type

Media TypeTotal TweetsSum InteractionsAverage Interactions (>=1)
Static Image2522812.36134
Quoted RT124851.93182
Image of Text250951.46154

Implications of the pull of GIFs on viewers’ attention

The fact that the students and I were more likely to interact with tweets containing media in general and GIFs specifically impacted what we perceived as significant within the course. Throughout the course, we interacted with only a small number of the total tweets. We retweeted or favorited less than a quarter of all tweets created over the 25 class meetings. In total, we interacted with 630 tweets containing media and 1,954 tweets without media. All told, these 2,584 tweets represented only 24.03% of the total 10,752 original tweets.

The presence or absence of media narrowed our attention and specific types of media further reduced the scope of what we noticed on Twitter. Approximately 47.22% of tweets containing static images, 43.09% with GIFs, and a full 61.54% of tweets with videos received one or more interactions. By contrast, tweets containing text-based media merited little attention. We treated tweets with images of text much the same way we handled text-only tweets: we rarely noticed them.

Only 26% of tweets with images of text received one or more interactions, which means this form of media was only 5% more likely to receive attention than tweets without any form of media whatsoever. The disparity is important because students used images of text to circumvent the 140 character limit in place for tweets at the time of the course. Tweets with images of text therefore contained lengthier quotes or commentary about course content. By privileging image-oriented tweets over tweets that contained images of text or text alone, the students and I neglected tweets that potentially expressed more nuanced analyses of class content.

In sum, the students and I gave far greater attention to tweets with media than tweets without media. We also showed a strong preference for tweets containing visual media over text-based media. The consequence of only noticing a small percentage of tweets is that we limited the range of what we perceived as significant within the course. Media exacerbated our myopia by drawing our attention to tweets that were easy to absorb rather than those that contained lengthier analysis. This equation of “attention-grabbing” with “significant” presents a serious obstacle to exploring historical significance. It is difficult to fully weigh the impact, influence, remarkability, or resonance of historical phenomena if one has not paid attention to most of the people, ideas, or events encountered in the first place.

Historical Empathy: Context and Dissonance in GIF Use

GIFs captured attention at higher rates than text-only content and commanded our attention for prolonged periods of time. The perpetuation of GIFs caused some ideas to have greater staying-power than others. Used well, GIFs’ capacity to make an idea stick could be a powerful pedagogical tool. However, the tendency for GIFs to add to the “stickiness” of ideas poses a constraint when GIFs are used to reinforce correlations that do not develop students’ perspectives and skills in a course. My students’ entertaining but ahistorical parallel between Francis of Assisi, a medieval saint, and Disney’s cohort of princesses serves as a case in point.

Francis as Disney Princess?

For our class introducing Medieval Europe, I asked students to read portions of Thomas of Celano’s First Life of St. Francis. I intentionally assigned passages containing some truly foreign moments, including Francis stripping naked in front of the Bishop of Assisi’s court and Francis preaching to birds, fish, and lambs. While Francis’s actions might be read as well outside the norm in many present-day contexts, many medieval Italians saw him as a saint and viewed his actions as evidence of his zealous Christian faith. The text tested students’ capacity to approach a far-distant society with understanding and care.

In the face of profoundly unfamiliar content, many students worked to create affinity with Francis and the medieval people discussed in class. Some students found resonance with Francis’s life by drawing on their own faith traditions (especially Christianity and Buddhism). Others proposed a humorous parallel between past and present. Students noted with glee that Francis’s action of preaching to birds reminded them of moments when woodland creatures assist Disney princesses in Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and Enchanted. GIFs depicting birds aiding Snow White, Cinderella, Aurora, and Giselle appeared in the Primary Source Tweets (PST), General Tweets, and the Exit Tweets.

The parallel was engaging and memorable, but the entertaining quality of the Francis-as-Disney-princess GIFs constrained students’ practice of historical empathy. The GIFs produced and sustained context collapse which limited students’ ability to attend to differences between past and present. The fluid relationship between GIFs and context is often an asset to users because it guarantees flexibility of meaning, as Huber notes:

“Big bird communicates the experiences of a drunk teen, a cat communicates the experience of dropping a tiny screw, an underpaid mall cop communicates the experience of a 20-something girl dealing with drama amongst her friends. This is a quintessential example of the context collapse that characterizes so much of new media practices and products.”

Linda Huber, “Remix Culture & the Reaction GIF”

In my students’ case, GIFs of Disney princesses communicated students’ efforts to make Francis and his context more familiar. Yet their collapse of past and present posed an obstacle to their development of historical empathy. The repeating images of the princesses, assisted by birds in their everyday tasks, created dissonance with the primary source and exhibited a lack of concern for Francis’s context. The GIFs reinforced the servitude of animals to humans, which contradicted Francis’s insistence on the co-servanthood of all living things to the Christian God. The images also ignored Francis’s intentional poverty by equating him with the riches and wealth the princesses received as the reward for their virtue and beauty.

In short, the GIFs failed to capture the significance of St. Francis’s life to medieval people. Students’ difficulty identifying the differences between past and present diminished their attention to the particularities of context. This is problematic for historical empathy as attention to context is an essential skill for students’ care and understanding. Any barrier to the growth of this skill can slow students’ development of historical empathy and consequently hinder their development of everyday empathy too.

Everyday Empathy: Inadvertent Ableism and Digital Blackface

The context collapse engendered by GIFs is consequential for historical empathy, but the ramifications for everyday empathy can be more serious. I argued in Affect and Historical Empathy that understanding difference and withholding judgment when encountering past peoples can be useful practice for encountering otherness in the present. Careful reading and attention to the context of primary sources helps overturn incomplete and incorrect understandings of the past. Comprehending the context framing past people’s decisions can translate into greater willingness to consider the nuance of others’ lives in the present.

GIFs complicate the transition from historical empathy to everyday empathy because the medium is saturated with uncritical appropriations of bodies. The embodiments presented in GIFs offer many affordances, including a wide range of emotional expressions, but the use of digital bodies is not a neutral act. Utilizing a represented body to express one’s own reaction or emotion entails taking on that body’s race, gender, age, and abilities in order to reproduce one’s own embodied gestures. Simulating one’s own gestures with the body of someone else easily slips into the perpetuation of harmful stereotypes, especially racial stereotypes as Joshua Green and Michelle Jackson note in their critiques of digital blackface. Absence of concern for others and the ways they are represented in GIFs obstructs the practice of everyday empathy.

Classroom Context and an Ethic of Care

Students used GIFs to entertain, engage, respond, and create affinity among themselves and with past peoples. Any stereotypes present in the GIFs were most likely unintentional and went uncorrected by me at the time. Yet racism can be inadvertent and harmful nonetheless. My intention in critiquing the GIFs in this section is not to blame students or offer an ineffectual apology for my own lack of awareness. Instead, the following passages are an extended reflection on the consequences of using media in the classroom without first thinking through who and what we’re representing in the images we choose.

This portion of “Hashtag History” is an invitation to build an ethic of care around the use of visual media in the classroom. To adapt Levstik and Barton’s rhetoric of varieties of care: we can choose to care that GIFs have the capacity to perpetuate harmful stereotypes, care about representations of ability and race in images, care for the people harmed by dehumanizing representations, and care to make changes in our use of images on social media and in the classroom.

Unintentional Ableism: Context Collapse and Disability

It is unusual for students to choose a blogging project topic focused on an African kingdom or society and rarer still for a group to select a topic that investigates the life of a disabled person. My lack of emphasis on disability and accessibility prior to Fall 2017 and Singapore’s public discourse (or lack thereof) regarding disability contributed to students’ lack of awareness about disability. In “Enabling the Singapore Story,” Zhuang contends: “National history contains an inherent able-ist bias: despite calls for building an inclusive society, the disabled are missing from the Singapore Story.” Singapore has begun to move toward inclusive design in response to the work of disability rights activists in the country. Still, it remains a largely ableist state in which public spaces are not always accessible and the language surrounding disability favors the rhetoric of “special needs” and “welfare” instead of inclusivity.

The classroom context and Singapore’s discourse on disability left students ill-prepared to sensitively narrate the life of a disabled historical figure. In the post “The Real Lion King,” the authors explore the Epic of Sundiata, a poem detailing the life of Sundiata Keita, who founded the Mali Empire in the 1200s CE. The students summarized the Epic accurately and carefully in the textual portion of their post. They wrote:

“Sundiata was born with physical disabilities – a head too big, mute and lame – until he was seven years old. No magic or herbs seemed to work –Sundiata could not be cured. He was shunned from society and not revered.”

Seven years later, they tell readers, Sundiata learned to talk and eventually walked through sheer force of will. In response to the ridicule heaped on his mother and himself, Sundiata “pulled himself up onto his own feet using nothing but strong rods, and could walk from then on.”

The authors placed a GIF sourced from Meet the Robinsons directly following their description of Sundiata’s disabilities (“a head too big, mute and lame”). In the animation, a cartoon Tyrannosaurus Rex declares, “I have a big head and little arms” while waving his arms up and down. Students likely included the GIF because they believed it would be humorous and engaging. When inserted after a description of physical disabilities, however, the GIF was immediately insensitive to the lives and experiences of disabled women and men in the past and present.

T Rex GIF (via GIPHY)

The use of the T-Rex GIF ignored the ridicule Sundiata and his mother received for their disabilities. By portraying a physical description as humorous in the present, the authors implied the abuse suffered by Sundiata and his mother was a natural consequence of their physical appearance. The use of this GIF likewise failed to take into account the experiences of disabled members of their reading audience. Physical and mental disability has long been a punchline for stand-up comedians and everyday conversations. The authors assumed the GIF would be humorous for all readers and did not anticipate the presence of readers with physical disabilities. The GIF, however unintentionally, demonstrated a lack of care about and for the experiences and perspectives of disabled women and men in the past as well as contemporary readers.

Critiquing Digital Blackface: The Complex Dynamics of Race and Racism for Singaporean Students

Conversations about Race and Racism in Singapore

While a national conversation about disability is largely absent, discussions about race and racism in Singapore are generally avoided. Singaporeans are highly aware of racial categories but there is little public discourse regarding systematic racial bias. A person’s official race (Chinese, Malay, Indian, Other) is included on national identity cards and racial identity can influence everything from eligibility for political office to education, housing, and national service. Singapore employs racial quota policies in politics, education, housing, and the military in order to prevent the exclusion of minorities from power and the formation of racial enclaves in Singapore.

Singapore’s policies are effective in preventing overt discrimination, but are less influential in addressing inequalities fostered by implicit bias. Disparities in access to education, higher wages, and private housing indicate unresolved racial inequalities in the nation. Chinese, Indian, and Malay citizens qualify for university at wildly different rates (22.6% of Chinese residents, 35% of Indians, but only 5.1% of Malay Singaporeans) and median incomes differ greatly by race too ($5100 SGD per month for Chinese Singaporeans, $5370 earned by Indian residents, $3844 per month on average for Malay residents). The demographics of private, affluent housing complexes mirror income inequality. Only 2.8% of Malay residents live in private housing versus 18% of Chinese Singaporeans and 16.3% of Indian residents.

The national valuation of meritocracy makes it difficult to address these disparities. Inequalities, however widespread, are typically explained as a result of individual lack of effort The national conversation reinforces the belief that hard work inevitably results in economic prosperity. In his 2016 survey, “Attitudes on Social Issues,” Mathew Mathews found that 89% of his 2000 Singaporean survey participants agreed or strongly agreed with the statement, “Everyone who works hard, no matter what race they are, has an equal chance to become rich.” Furthermore, 73% disagreed or strongly disagreed with the suggestion, “Race is very important in determining who is successful and who is not.” Widespread disagreement with the latter statement indicates a deep-seated belief in meritocracy and immense skepticism regarding the presence of systematic inequalities. For many Singaporeans, individual effort, not systems and structures, is the root of any ostensible racial inequalities.

Singaporean Students’ Knowledge of Race/Racism in Pop Culture and the U.S.

Singaporean attitudes toward race are an important part of the perspectives students bring to discussions of race and racism. National context is not the only influence at work, however. Singaporean students’ familiarity with Western popular culture is part of their framework, as evidenced by their easy use of GIFs from media like Game of Thrones, Doctor Who, The Simpsons, and American reality shows. At least some of the students in my course also possessed basic knowledge of race relations in the United States due to their completion of a course titled “American Pluralism.” The course fulfills one of the requirements for general education and focuses on U.S. history from 1945 to the present with an emphasis on diversity and identity politics. Not every student completed American Pluralism before taking World Civilizations I, but the class nonetheless influenced the perspectives that at some students brought to the class.

The Trickiness of Critiquing Digital Blackface in a Singapore Classroom

The layers through which Singaporean students view race and racism are exceptionally difficult to parse in the tweets and blog posts. Without surveys or interviews to accompany students’ public writing, it is difficult to determine which aspects of students’ perspectives on race and racism influenced students’ work in the course. National narratives, knowledge of Western pop culture, and education in recent U.S. history all potentially colored students’ awareness of race and racism in visual media.

In addition, virtually every GIF used by Singaporean students represents a potential form of appropriation. Asian and Asian-American public figures are historically underrepresented in Western popular media. My students primarily drew their GIFs from American and British films and TV shows, so using only embodiments similar to their own would have limited students to a relatively small catalog of GIFs. Students understandably reached for GIFs containing the bodies of women and men of a wide variety of races. Figures from animated television shows and non-human animals also populated students’ GIFs.

Below, I avoid naming any particular GIF as evidence of digital blackface. Instead, I trace how frequently the stereotypes identified as digital blackface by Jackson and Green appeared in students’ tweets. To do so, I coded GIFs for race and gender based on the embodiment or embodiments that seemed to be present. I included gender in the coding as Jackson notes the intersection of race and gender in her critique. In order to avoid incorrectly judging or reifying a person’s racial identity, I researched the family and national backgrounds of the people in the GIFs and adhered to their public statements expressing their racial or ethnic identity.

If a person identified with multiple ethnicities or races, I coded the GIF as “multiracial.” If the GIF quality was insufficient to identify a person’s race or gender or I could not find information about the person or people in the GIF, I categorized the tweet as “GIF unclear.” Finally, some GIFs included multiple people or bodies. When that was the case, I coded each embodiment in the tweet and the tweet appeared as multiple instances in the counts and averages (e.g., a GIF portraying an Asian female and white female counted toward the total in both categories).

Digital Blackface in Students’ Tweets

Though their national context differs from the American contexts critiqued by Jackson, my students used GIFs the way most people do. They chose GIFs for the emotions the images expressed but did not actively consider the race or gender of the persons represented by the GIFs they chose. This led to was a wide variety of embodiments represented in the GIFs and the majority of students chose embodiments that did not match their own racial or gender identity.

Students tweeted only a handful of GIFs containing Asian figures. Asian males appear in 18 GIFs (2.10% of the 857 total GIFs) and Asian females appear in 6 GIFs (0.07% of the total). White men and women, by contrast, were prominent figures in the GIFs, appearing in 230 and 117 GIFs respectively. In total, 40.49% of tweets contain images of white men and women. Franchise characters, such as characters from Adventure Time, Pokemon, Spongebob Squarepants, and various anime series, were also common (157 of 587, or 18.32%, of the GIFs).

Students did not include GIFs representing black men and women or other persons of color nearly as often. Black men and women appear in 83 tweets; latinx/Hispanic men and women appear in 7 tweets. Likewise, just seven tweets included multiracial women and men. Nonetheless, GIFs containing black, latinx/Hispanic, and multiracial bodies follow the trend Jackson identifies in her critique of digital blackface. GIFs portraying persons of color are associated with extreme emotions and, as such, reinforce stereotypes associating persons of color with intense, uncontrollable emotions. In my students’ tweets, the trend is apparent in the average sentiments for each embodiment category (Table 14).

Table 14. Average sentiment and count by embodiment category

RankEmbodimentAvg SentimentTotal Instances
1black female0.2878624
2latino/hispanic male0.277272
3other GIF0.1950063
4asian male0.1345818
6white female0.09694117
7white male0.08940230
10black male0.0505559
11latina/hispanic female0.034395
12GIF unclear0.0293811
13multiracial female0.020766
14pacific islander male0.005422
15asian female-0.154056
16multiracial male-0.286771

While “franchise,” “white male,” and “white female” appear in the middle of the range of average sentiments, GIFs including persons of color are situated at the extremes. Tweets accompanied by GIFs of black females sit at the most positive end of the spectrum while “asian female” and “multiracial male” evidence the lowest negative average sentiments. The code “black male” has a more moderate average, but nonetheless is separated from the median value (“franchise”) by a greater degree than the white men and white women categories (a difference of 0.03746 versus 0.00139 and 0.00893 respectively).

A summary of average sentiment by race alone, and including only real-life human embodiments (not franchise characters), reinforces the trend (Table 15). GIFs representing black or multiracial embodiments have the highest and lowest average sentiments. GIFs containing white men and women occupy the middle ground with GIFs of latinx/Hispanic and Asian wo/men in between.

Table 15. Average sentiment and count by racial category

Race/EthnicityAvg SentimentCount

Was digital blackface present in all GIFs representing persons of color? Probably not. Jackson is clear that not every use of a GIF containing a black person constitutes digital blackface. Still, the GIFs in students’ tweets fit the pattern Jackson criticizes. Willfully or not, students reinforced the stereotype associating persons of color with more extreme sentiment. Their uncritical selection of GIFs and my lack of preparedness to address the content of their GIFs conspired to perpetuate an injustice embedded in the fabric of visual media use on the web.